AT NEW YORK'S PC EXPO: THE NEW, THE BOLD AND THE USEFUL A look at trackballs, fax conversions and software sharing


Although falling prices were the big news at the recent PC Expo computer trade show in New York, many interesting new products were on display.

Still another place to install a trackball. Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston touched off the industry's latest price war with its new ProLinea, Deskpro/i and Contura families of low-cost computers, which drew a lot of attention from the thousands who attended the show. But the brightest spot, literally, in Compaq's new product line was a color version of the popular LTE notebook.

The LTE Lite 25c notebook, which has a suggested list price of $4,999, is a 6.5-pound machine that comes with four megabytes of system memory, an 80-megabyte hard disk drive complete with DOS and Windows, an active-matrix color display and a built-in trackball.

The processor is an Intel 386SL chip running at 25 megahertz. Compaq also tosses in a free year of on-site service and support.

Many computer makers have struggled with the placement of a pointing device, which is required for operating Windows and other so-called graphical operating systems. There have been clip-on trackballs, rotating space bars, little rock-and-roll controller buttons on the keyboard, matchbook-size thumb clickers and all sorts of other things. But Compaq has found a new spot.

Compaq's engineers decided to embed the trackball in the side of the LTE Lite 25c's lid, next to the color screen. The user holds the screen as one might hold the cover of a book, controlling the roller on the front with a thumb while the other fingers operate the trackball buttons on the back.

I like the Apple Powerbook's solution best -- pushing the keyboard forward and placing the trackball under the typist's thumbs -- but Compaq's solution also is quite clever.

Compaq can be reached at (713) 370-0670.

Better fax converter. Caere Corp. of Los Gatos, Calif., unveiled an impressive new system called FaxMaster, which will work with computers equipped with Microsoft Windows 3.1 and a fax modem.

FaxMaster, scheduled for delivery before the end of summer with a suggested list price of $249, will capture an incoming fax document, convert it to computer text or graphics that can be edited and placed in regular documents and compress the data.

Fax documents are essentially pictures of paper documents. A picture, in computer terms, is worth thousands of words of disk space, and a fax of several pages can easily eat up more than a megabyte of space. A fax document usually has to be retyped into the computer if the user wants to edit it, an inefficient process.

Using a technique called optical character recognition, FaxMaster "looks" at the incoming document and converts it into three segments: text, graphics and white space (plus extraneous speckles or "dirt" that show up during scanning and transmission). The white space and speckles are thrown away, but the user probably doesn't want them anyway.

Other so-called fax converters are on the market, but FaxMaster is different because it appears to work well with faxes arriving in standard mode, not just fine mode.

Fine mode yields a sharper and clearer image, but it takes several times as long to send something in fine mode as it does in regular mode. The recipient may not always be able to ask the sender to use fine mode.

If the finished version of FaxMaster works as well as the demonstration at PC Expo, it will certainly be popular with the fax-modem crowd.

Caere can be reached at (408) 395-7000.

Bridging the software gap. One item of great interest to software developers, but of less immediate interest to software users, was the announcement that Symantec Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. have agreed to share technologies that make it easier to create software for Macintosh and Windows computers.

The Apple and Symantec technologies, called MacApp and Bedrock, will make it much easier and faster to transform a Macintosh program to Windows and vice versa. Not many computer users will ever need Bedrock with Mac-App, but they stand to benefit anyway. The result of the deal is likely to be more and better software for consumers.

Symantec of Cupertino, Calif., can be reached at (408) 253-9600 for general information; for orders, the number is (800) 441-7234.

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